Jul 23, 2021

Alburgh residents opening their own child care center to fill a ‘desperate’ need

Five years ago, a group of Alburgh residents sat down to decide how to spend a federal grant for kindergarten readiness.

They soon realized, though, that it was going to take a lot more work for the town’s early childhood education system to meet local needs.

That’s when the group came up with “this crazy dream,” town librarian Gina Lewis said: They would build their own child care center.

Five years later, the group has secured about $1 million in federal, state and private funding for the project — which is called the Alburgh Family Clubhouse — and plans to break ground on a roughly 3,200-square-foot building early next year.

They also have partnered with a number of local organizations to do it, including Let’s Grow Kids, a Burlington-based child care advocacy group; United Way of Northwest Vermont; and the Northwest Regional Planning Commission.

“We can’t move quickly enough,” said Lewis, who’s also the president of the Alburgh Family Clubhouse board. “With all those people holding our hands, we’ve really been able to come pretty far in five years.”

The new facility will be built on the campus of the Alburgh Community Education Center, which is the town’s K-8 school. It will provide about 40 spots for children from birth to age 5, as well as after-school support programs for school-age children.

The center also will house a public preschool managed by the Grand Isle Supervisory Union. Alburgh voters approved construction of the new building in March.

Lewis said it’s likely the Alburgh Family Clubhouse won’t just serve families from Alburgh, but also from across northwestern Vermont as well as New York State.

Desperate need

Alburgh, a town of about 2,000 at the top of Lake Champlain, has a desperate need for child care, said Martin Giuffre, director of the Alburgh Family Clubhouse board.

The town does not have a licensed child care center — just two programs based out of local homes, which serve only a small number of children.

“That leaves a huge hole for working families here,” Lewis said.

Child care access is lacking throughout Grand Isle County, VTDigger has reported: On the islands, nearly 80% of infants likely to need child care did not have access to a regulated program, according to a 2020 Let’s Grow Kids analysis.

As of 2019, the organization found, the county needed about 90 additional child care spaces for kids under age 5. Last month, the islands’ oldest child care center shut its doors after nearly 30 years of operation in the town of Grand Isle.

What’s more, experts say the need for child care is growing across the state.

Before the pandemic, more than 60% of the youngest Vermonters likely to need these services had no access to a regulated program, according to Let’s Grow Kids.

Help wanted

Giuffre said he hopes the Alburgh Family Clubhouse also can provide several jobs for local residents, which are otherwise hard to come by in town.

“There’s almost no employment here of any kind,” he said. “We don’t even have a grocery store … you have to travel 10 miles to get groceries.”

The town’s average unemployment rate — not seasonally adjusted — was 4.3% over the first six months of 2021, according to Vermont Department of Labor data. The statewide average for the same time period was 3.2%.

About 16% of Alburgh households live below the poverty line, according to a March 2020 study by the consulting firm Doug Kennedy Advisors. Statewide, about 10% of households live below the poverty line, U.S. Census data shows.

Yet finding staff for the child care center could be difficult, Giuffre said. Vermont had a shortage of more than 2,000 lead early childhood educators at the start of 2020, Let’s Grow Kids found, and the industry is plagued by low wages.

The Alburgh Family Clubhouse is searching for an executive director, Lewis said. After that, it hopes to start advertising the program to the public.

“There’s no alternative in Alburgh right now,” said Lee Kimball, chair of the Alburgh Selectboard. “I think it’s vitally important to be able to have some way to educate our kids, and get them off on the right foot, before they go into the world.”

Click here to read this story on VTDigger.org. 

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